A sit down with poet, author and essayist Salena Godden.
Interview by Fayann Smith
The first time I saw Godden perform was in a draughty Cornish barn. I wandered into the audience just as she started to read her essay “Shade” from the Good Immigrant anthology. Our eyes locked as she clocked me zoning in intently, there was a moment of recognition. Shade articulated the bizarre politics that arise due to the colour of our skin, it moved me, I squirmed, unspoken truths hit with rapid fire. It struck me that was the first time I’d seen anybody who looked like me, standing unselfconsciously as a poet and laying shit down like she owned it. There was a lot of laughter, but Godden’s truths were barbed and delivered with just enough brutality that they refused to be dismissed. I found myself amongst a sea of nodding heads, the grim recognition palpable, as if we were huffing laughing gas at our own autopsy. You have to wonder about anybody who has that power, the power to say the most uncomfortable things with the perfect calibration of pathos and party. They are the dangerous ones.
You were nominated for a 2016 Ted Hughes award on a shortlist that was described by the judges as “one of the bravest, most exciting yet”. How did that feel?
It was horrible. I never want to do any prizey stuff again! No, it was exciting, I was honoured to be included, but it was also horrible. Immediately I was paranoid, like okay what am I representing here? It wasn’t until you had a look at the list and that you think, am I here because I’m the only brown one? Am I here because I’m the only woman? Am I here because I’m the only working class one? Ah! I’m here because I’m the oldest! So I think maybe I was there because I was representing the over forties. It’s bad, you know that’s what we all kind of do when we are given things, we always make excuses for why that is, it doesn’t occur to us it might be because our work is good, or because we’ve worked hard.
Yes. Immediately we think oh I’m just representing, it’s just tokenism, I’m just here because they need more working class people, I’m just here to make up the brown numbers… So yeah, it was weird because I thought why are you suddenly knocking on my door? This is my twenty-fifth year doing poetry, why now? But then I enjoyed it as well and it was a funny thing, it was weird standing there in this room waiting to see if they would call your name or not. It was a mixture of feelings. It kind of felt like, look man if you want to just give me some money to help me make my next book why do I have to do this funny little tap dance, this X factor kind of thing.
I’ve been nominated, either me individually or the Good Immigrant for about five or six things in the last six months, I’d never been nominated for anything, for any prizes or awards, like I said in twenty five years and suddenly I’m going to these strange award ceremonies. First thing you notice is all the staff at the events are Asian and black and all the people giving the awards and receiving the awards are white and you were there for six hours clapping and you feel a bit like Mr Bojangles. You don’t really get to win but you get to represent, to be even in that room is a great thing. You mustn’t get all Nina Simone in your head, but you do a little bit. It’s really difficult to feel like you deserve a prize or a nomination, it’s difficult to wonder if you are there to represent over forties or working class or women and that’s bad really because it would be nice to just enjoy it, to think that possibly it’s because you made a beautiful book or a beautiful album.
I mean everyone was really kind, everyone is really lovely in all those situations, but this is all new to me, awards, award ceremonies, nominations, shortlists are all kind of new to me. It’s not an area I’m familiar with and it’s certainly not a place I’m comfortable. I’m not sure I want to be accepted by the establishment, I’m not sure I want the man to give me a trophy, I quite like being a little bit underground, a bit wild, a little bit hard to understand, a little bit outside. You know at school when you become like the house captain, the teachers pet, I don’t know if I want to be visible in that way.
To see a brown female linked with somebody as establishment as Ted Hughes made a great impression on me as he loomed very large throughout my education. It seemed very impressive to me.
It was impressive, it was a brilliant thing, but I doubt I’ll be invited back. That’s probably my moment now, I doubt that I’ll get any more nominations and will probably have to wait another twenty five years until I get a look in again. (I’m joking) But I really love making work, writing, and I don’t like anything that distracts me from that, I think prizes and awards, even filling out funding proposals and pitching for funding takes the magic away. Instantly you are monetising it and you’re thinking who is your audience? How is the money going to work? I don’t want to think about that! This is just a beautiful idea, I want to tell this story, I like making work, a lot of work constantly, that’s when I like myself best really, making work. All the other stuff I find a necessary evil.
Before this nomination and the wealth of accolades that proceed it you were just another young poet surviving on “Marmalade and noodles”. Having picked one of the hardest vocations in the world that would send most parents into terminal eye roll, what kept you going? What gave you the audacity to think you could make it?
Have I made it? No, I’ve still got a long way to go I’m still in training.
So what is making it to you?
Yeah, exactly, what is making it? I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied. I’m constantly moving the goalposts, to the point that I can’t even enjoy it or appreciate it when I have reached the goalpost. I’m a big diary writer, I write all my diaries and I keep a real record of stuff. I look at old diaries from fifteen years ago and it’s like “all I want is my own room to write in”. I’ve got that now, wow I’ve got a room to write in!
You’ve got to stop to appreciate the small things and realise that there are some things that you really longed for that you’ve got or done. You keep speeding through, to the next thing, to the next thing, and living like that is really painful, I really try and keep an eye on myself doing that.
I’m not really sure what making it is, as I still have to fight to be heard, to have equal billing, to have my name spelt right. When I do a gig I’m still chasing the money for three months, I’m still very much running around like a twenty five year old. I’m forty five and very much still chasing better paid gigs, just as I was when I was twenty five, none of that has really changed. I’m still fighting, fighting for what I know works for me, but you sort of learn as you go along don’t you.
I want to know what you thought was important about your voice, what was it that made you think I need to keep saying this?
There are several answers to that, I suppose the first one is that when you like doing something you want to keep doing it. When you like something you try to get good at it; find something you love and you’ll never work again your life, you know what I mean? It just feels like play. I’ve always loved books and writing from a very early age, so there is that answer. I can remember selling poems for cigarettes at school behind the bike sheds especially on Valentine’s Day, really shit ones like, “Steve Steve don’t ever leave” little rhyming things for a B&H.
I also believe we all have this really beautiful vision, we’ve all got a really different perspective of the world. You know this idea that you can have seven people around the table and serve them dinner and they all go home with a different idea of what that dinner tasted like, what it felt like. Laurie Lee, you know who wrote Cider with Rosie, he talked about having all his brothers and sisters and one Christmas morning would be completely different for each one, as one was in love, one got a shiny new bike; they would all be feeling very different on that same morning. If you got seven poets, to all write a different poem about the colour red, you get seven really different views of the colour red and I love that.
So I guess it’s a combination of sheer bloody mindedness and a belief that your voice, if not special, is equally interesting?
I was just quite sure, that my angle, my way of writing about things was mine and my own. I wasn’t mimicking any other poet or any other artist. I’ve got empathy, I try to look around the room from seven different angles. A passion for it is really important, also I never really wanted to do anything else ever, I never wanted to do anything apart from write books and read books and write poetry, it’s all I want to do all the time and I don’t care about anything else really.
As you state in “Shade” your essay included in The Good Immigrant anthology, when it comes diversity monitoring forms “you tick other” You personally describe yourself as Jamish: Jamaican, Irish, English. This is a much more vivid and fun way to explain the convergence of the elements that form your ethnic identity; did you feel it was important to find language to define yourself when even system struggled too?
Very much so; Jamish was just my jokey way of saying what I felt I was. It’s been a tough thing being a mixed kid. There’s this idea because you’re brown you are going to get some kind of special privileges, but you don’t really, because maybe you are not brown enough. When Springfield Road came out I didn’t get hardly any interest from black or BAME journalists. So it’s kind of strange you’ve got to try and find your tribe, I can never be white, but then I can be not black enough. So you are in this sort of other place. My tribe has always been people who just consider themselves as outsiders, I talk about this in The Good Immigrant, in ‘Shade’. I’ve always found that my tribe, my gang are ‘the others’ the people who are outside, whether they are LGBT, or mixed, or disabled, or people who are just aren’t the 100% whatever THAT is. They’ve always been the people who have read my work and supported my work more than anything.
I found it really interesting in Springfield Road when you discuss the Maroons. Your maternal grandmother’s, grandmothers were Maroons, Jamaican slaves who resisted the British, formed independent governance and are who are now recognised as indigenous people by the UN – tell me more about them and what they mean to you?
There’s a lot, it’s a big subject, so I’ll have to check my facts but these are the kind of things my grandparents would tell me. The Maroons were the thorn in the side of the English, the English had all the plantations with African slaves. The first people to ever inhabit Jamaica where the Arawaks. The Arawak Indians are very similar to the Aboriginals in their artwork, the way they dressed, their relationship to nature and the moon. They were pretty much wiped out by the Spanish, and then the English, and so the remainder of them went and hid up in the mountains and I think that’s where the Maroons began. When the ships stopped in the Caribbean, runaway slaves would head up to hide with the Maroons in the mountains also, so you get this African and Arawak thing going on.
So they were a diverse group?
I could be wrong but I always picture them like that, outsiders and runways. The Maroons knew the land and Jamaican terrain by heart and they were led by a woman, Nanny of the Maroons, which is very unusual knowing how patriarchal and how male Jamaica is, so that makes me smile that it was a woman that ran the Maroons. The Maroons invented guerrilla warfare, on record, they could become a bush or a tree and slit your throat before you even saw the bush or tree. They had an amazing mantra that they would live by, “To never bow head or knee, to hear only their own voice, to stand in the shadow of none and be masters of their own destiny” I’d like to study this properly one day, there are gaps in my heritage and history.
It’s often enriching to hear a poet read their own work, even better if they can perform it with all the requisite emotion. Having seen several of your performances, all so engaging and in their brilliant energetic synergy with the work, who and what has influenced your style of delivery?
I like to think that I’m a little bit Tina Turner, a little bit Bill Hicks, a little bit Richard Pryor and a little bit Janis Joplin. “Hey man why can’t everybody just get together and love each other!” – I’m so idealistic, I’m fully aware I’m a dreamer but I do really believe in love and peace and if we all get together and have a conversation it could be a beautiful world. I do really believe in those ideologies, a combination of gutsy, ballsy, completely shameless, unapologetic idealism. We live in a funny time where being a bit cynical, a bit snide, is seen as being clever, whereas I think it makes you look cold. I think being warm and believing in love is a much more courageous position to take right now.
When I was making Livewire, the album, I was inspired by a piece of vinyl I own which is Whoopi Goldberg in 1979, 1980… A long while back and man, she is ruder than Eddie Murphy! Pure filth! She is like motherfucker this, motherfucker that, she’s fluent in motherfucker. So rude and funny…and look how establishment she is now! I liked that it was on vinyl, so that made me want to put my performances on vinyl. [Ed. Whoopi Goldberg LP “Original Broadway Show Recording” is probably the one if you want a lesson in motherfucker].
That gives me the perfect opportunity to ask, do people have a problem with all the fucking swearing?
No, is the bold answer but if they do I’m sure they’ll come and tell me. I recently did a gig with Suzi Quattro, I’d prepared quite a rock ‘n’ roll set as I thought it’d be quite a rock ‘n’ roll audience. It wasn’t, it was quite a polite audience and an Irish woman came and told me off after my gig and she said: “we don’t need to be hearing about The Gays, why are you talking about The Gays” – It is the way she said “The Gays” it really got my back up. “We don’t need to be hearing about The Gays and women’s bodies, we don’t need to be hearing about women’s breasts and vaginas. We don’t need to be hearing all that”. Of course I immediately went home and wrote a poem about it! Yes we clearly do lady, as I’m still being told to shut up about it.
Watching your live recitals is a hugely exciting but often conflicting and occasionally uncomfortable experience. You flip the tone from dark comedy to pathos in a way that leaves the laughter to ice in the room; as the adage goes “if you are going to tell them the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you” – would you agree this is part of your methodology?
I like to take people on a rollercoaster and I like to make them laugh and cry at least three times when I’m doing a big set, like an hour long set, I want you to cry three times, laugh three times, I want you to cross your legs and go “Oh that makes me feel a bit funny” or “oh my god that makes me feel a bit nice.” I want all those emotions, I want you to go through it; passion, pain, fury, you’ll notice I never do the same set twice, I never do the same poem the same way twice. I like to feel the room, talk to people in the room, I like to bring things in that were happening in the news that day. I like to do a poem that I have written fresh that week, to keep me on my toes so that I’m really in the moment and authentic and this is something I’m passionate about. I think when you are doing a poetry gig, you are doing it for the room, its back to the thing we were saying at the beginning, people have different perceptions and often each person goes home thinking about different lines of each poem.
Alongside many other creative lives, you are also a musician/vocalist, who has been active in several bands and at one time signed; I’m guessing your previous incarnations as a recording artist have given you a musicality that has informed the delivery of your work?
I always made music, music was my first thing. There’s this box at my Mum’s and we got it out and in there we found my first songs, they are so cute. We are talking ten, eleven, twelve, I was always writing songs before I knew what poetry was, or that people could be a poet. What even was that? It seems like something of olden times, but singer/songwriter, that was more something to do. During the time I worked for Acid Jazz records, early 1990’s, I did some backing vocals for a band called Corduroy and that was my first tickle. Then I started working with Coldcut [as Salena Saliva] and that was huge, I mean “Let Us Play!” was huge. I worked with Coldcut, toured with them, and it was during that period I met Peter Coyte. Peter is amazing and he is a really gifted man. We are working together again now on my new Mrs Death Misses Death project, we did a gig in June at the Roundhouse and it was really exciting, so we are going to keep working on that this winter.
In the introduction to your childhood Memoir Springfield Rd, you remark that you found it extremely difficult to access genuinely painful moments relating to your relationship to your father. You had stayed in more playful personal territory during your formative years as a poet. What happened that finally allowed you to access those memories?
I think the act of remembering is a funny thing. I think memory is a funny thing. Just when you think you’ve got it down, just when you think you are going to write this memory and it is lovely and clear and you’re sure you’ll write pages and pages, it ends up being two lines. But then you are down this alleyway…suddenly you are remembering something you didn’t want to remember or something you’ve completely forgotten. You’ll write an entire chapter about something you’ve blanked out or just forgotten. Memory is funny like that, its not tidy, if you are writing a memoir it won’t be very interesting if you’ve just written down the things that are on the tip of your tongue or the sort of things that you say down the pub, memoir writing is all about the memories you thought you had lost.
You address this in Springfield Road, the idea of the slipperiness of memory. How memories can be borrowed, fragmented…
It’s amazing the things we keep and the things we throw away, it’s amazing the things we think we’ve thrown away, but that are stashed, under some funny, ordinary thing, like a recipe for scones, but underneath there is this other memory, beneath something that seems really surface. Like a daisy swept aside to reveal a gravestone. Memory doesn’t work like a filing system, it is much more multi-layered than that, we’ve hidden things under things, we put things under the wrong markers. Sometimes you’ll just wander down the road and catch a smell of something and suddenly you are remembering the most random, mad things. Once you start remembering, you can’t stop. I was very disciplined and hard on myself when I wrote Springfield Rd, I created an insane work ethic, waking at 4am writing till 4pm. I was exhausted. It was a feeling I had to honour, it was a book I had to honour, to finish, once I’d started I found myself in the middle of a ditch and I had to write my way out of it. It wasn’t so much cathartic, it was like my father wanted me to tell the story, I felt like he was very present. So many weird and magical things happened, like finding a sister I didn’t know I had, and an unexpected letter telling me that somebody knew where my father’s grave was. It was like by writing it I was sending out some kind of invisible smoke signal.
Returning back to those early memories of Springfield Road you refer to a time that your Nanny (grandmother) taught you to believe there are forces in the world greater than us and that you trusted her every word. Do you still feel the influence of those forces and what do they mean to you now at this point of your life?
I don’t really know how to answer that, just I think there is more. I feel like I live two lives, I feel like I have this whole life in my dreams. Most of my work comes from my dreams, Springfield Road came from my dreams, whatever I’m reading, or writing or working on, I start dreaming in it. A lot of my poems are dreams, the latest poem I’m working on, I watched my hand writing it, so I woke up the next morning and wrote it. During Springfield Road I woke to my seven year old self shaking me to get up and get on with work. I saw my father sitting on the end of my bed.
With regard to your less extraordinary influences, like many of us, the dead white men of the Western literary Canon feature prominently, but how easy is it for a young brown woman to find her unique voice in this established cacophony so very different from her own?
Good writing is good writing; good writing is honest writing, it is writing that hurts. It is writing that is brutal, comes from a place of pain, or a place of great joy, or great dreams. I really, really loved Bukowski when I was young, because it was the first time that I read somebody that spoke about stinking and drinking and being bad and doing it wrong. He was so open and honest about getting it wrong, being a loser, being outside, fucking up. Stinking of shit and drinking and being an asshole. What attracted me to Bukowski is not that I thought it was clever or big, or something to look up too and I’m completely aware that’s not a feminist read. What I loved about it was the brutality and honest raw guts he put into the writing. I look for that honest, raw, guts in everything I read. I don’t like twee writing, I really hate Bridget Jones, in the end its all about her finding a husband, fuck off! I actually think that is more vulgar and offensive to feminism than Bukowski…bullshit to that! Forceful writing, real writing, writing that has got its hands dirty, that’s starved a bit. Writers who have come from a difficult place, writing that is compelled to be written on the page. All of that has nothing to do with gender or colour it is just about the heart.
Before I leave you, I have to ask, what is all this about pirates?
Apparently I’ve only ever been here once before and I’ve only had one life before and in my last life, my first life here, I was a pirate. I met a magician, an amazing man, he taught me some tricks and some magic and stuff. One of the things he told me was that I was a man in my last life. We had a pirate ship called Wyvern or something. I didn’t do any raping and pillaging, I was a seer, the wizard, I read the stars and maps and I had this monkey on my shoulder. I was the one who’d say “Oh no, don’t go South…the wind blows creul” – I made that bit up! Eventually the ship was captured, everyone else was hung, drawn and quartered, but I knew where the gold was, I went and got the gold and married a Jamaican plantation owner’s daughter. I am now the great-great granddaughter of a plantation owner. I still see the stars and know the stars and the moon and feel that energy, even if it’s not true I love that story!